Question of the Week #3

My parents divorced. Will my marriage be doomed?

My parents did not have a great marriage – they said hurtful things to one another, argued a lot, and separated twice. Individually I know my parents really cared about me, but there is no hiding the fact that my brother and I grew up in a stormy home. I am planning my own marriage now, and I have these nagging questions in the back of my head: Is my marriage doomed? Am I destined to follow in my parents’ footsteps?

One of the consequences of the 50% divorce rate in the US is that many adults were exposed, as children, to troubled relationships between their parents. And even if the parents manage to stay together, as was the case for your parents, obviously this is no guarantee that the marriage will be harmonious. Children will pay a price for harsh exchanges between their parents, as children and as they enter relationships in adulthood.

Here is what psychologists and sociologists know about how our marriages are affected by our parents’ marriage:

First, there really is a connection here. For better or worse, we learn a great deal about relationships from our parents and our families – how to disagree, how to show affection, how to spend time together as a family, and so on. Many good studies now show that your marriage will be, in part, a reflection of the families in which you and your partner were raised. You are right to be concerned.

Second, the connection is not a perfect one. There are plenty of people who have unhappy or divorced parents who themselves go on to have perfectly fine marriages – and there are plenty of people who have happy and intact parents who go on to have pretty bad marriages. In both cases we can see that a marriage is more than the by-product of our parents’ marriage, but this second group of people reminds us that a lot of things have to go well in order for a marriage to really thrive.

In our seminars, we tell couples that having divorced or highly conflicted parents doubles the risk of the children growing up to have bad relationships of their own. Now that might sound scary, but let’s dig a bit deeper. If children raised by happily married parents have, say, a 20% chance of ending their marriage, then children raised by unhappily married or divorced parents have twice the risk: about 40%. You do not want to overlook this risk, but you don’t want to forget that this means about 60% of the people raised to unhappily married or divorced parents turn out to have marriages just like those whose parents did not divorce. Sixty percent, more or less, end up doing just fine, and that is the good news.

So how do you get yourself into the right group, given your background? How do you overcome the risk? There is growing evidence that people with conflicted or divorced parents really do communicate less effectively than those with healthier family backgrounds. We see this in our own laboratory, when we videotape newlyweds like you talking about relationship strains. The fact that we can see these communication differences gets back to the idea that we learn about relationships by observing how our parents communicate with us and with each other, and then we display those skills – or that lack of skills – when we enter relationships of our own.

The key task seems to be managing negative emotions and relationship problems especially well. You and your partner might have to work extra hard at regulating feelings like frustration, anger, and sadness.

So what can you do?

  • Do your best to avoid these kinds of caustic emotions
  • Try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt when he screws up
  • Do not allow situations to escalate and get out of control
  • Avoid lashing out in anger at all costs
  • Talk with your partner about how important this is for you
  • Go out of your way to show affection and appreciation for your partner
  • Work hard to learn the circumstances that generate strong negative emotions in your marriage. Does this happen when dealing with in-laws? When work is stressful? When you have been drinking?

You need to get the upper hand on these circumstances, or they will prove to disrupt your ability to stay close and connected within your marriage.

Good luck! Like all couples, you will have to take active, routine steps to keep your relationship healthy and strong. But unlike couples with parents who have good marriages, you might need to work a bit harder to learn the skills and strategies that will keep you and your partner feeling secure and validated. Take heart in knowing that the odds are actually in your favor, but remember that you and your partner need to work together as a team to break this particular family tradition. Doing so is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your children, and to your children’s children.

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